An attentive and enthusiastic audience of music lovers and students was on hand in the intimate Watson Chamber Music Hall on the University of North Carolina School of the Arts campus for an intriguing recital, “Rach Around the Bach,” featuring three members of the faculty of the School of Music. The musicians were cellist Brooks Whitehouse,  double bassist Paul Sharpe, and pianist Allison Gagnon. The Bach work was a very free arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D, S.1012, by the cellist; it featured the duo, Low and Lower, made up of Whitehouse and Sharpe. The cellist gave brief and witty comments to introduce the works from the stage. Gagnon joined Whitehouse after intermission for Rachmaninoff’s rich and romantic Sonata in G minor, Op.19.

Whitehouse explained that Bach’s Sixth Suite for solo cello was written for a five-string cello (which has an added E string), not the modern four-string model. He said playing one of those five-string models felt like “double-vision”: sometimes you could find the string you thought was in D is in A. Playing the piece on a modern cello was more athletic than aesthetic. He made the cello-bass arrangement to take advantage of the extra warmth of the bass, which could also play the call and response as well as the implied counterpoint, written out is his very free treatment of the Bach original. The original six movements, a prelude followed by five dance-like sections, were retained.

The performance was fascinating as Whitehouse’s reworkings, major and minor, became apparent. The added warmth was very evident in the Prelude, and a deep low bass note, which Sharpe called the “pedal tone of the righteous,” was an amusing and pleasing feature. The opening sound of the ensuing Allemande was the most jarring because it was so different from the original cello version to which I am accustomed. The intonation of both players was excellent. I liked their playing of the 4th movement (Sarabande) best and enjoyed the added richness of the Gavottes I and II which followed.

After intermission, Whitehouse and Gagnon turned in the finest live performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for cello and piano I have ever heard. The composer thought the two instruments were equal and resented it being called a “cello sonata.” Whitehouse quipped before the performance they were going to play Rachmaninoff’s only piano concerto with an accompaniment of an orchestra of one instrument. Virtually all the themes in the piece are first introduced by the piano alone and are then taken up by the cello, which treats them at length. Gagnon’s Steinway’s lid was fully raised but she expertly balanced her sound with the cello. The full color and tone of the piano came through unimpeded by a low lid. Whitehouse played with breathtaking control of color, dynamics, intonation, and tone. The long, lush melodies were seamless. Their performance was simply magnificent and would be fully worthy of being brought out as a recording.

The audience’s enthusiastic response was rewarded with the gorgeous “Méditation Hébraïque” by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), which had some interesting harmonies.